Cynthia (Cina) Pelayo is an International Latino Book Award winning author. She has written LOTERIA, SANTA MUERTE, POEMS OF MY NIGHT, and multiple short stories, poems and articles. Her upcoming novel, CHILDREN OF CHICAGO, will be published by Agora.

Santa Muerte by Cynthia Pelayo

In life, sometimes the only thing that can save you is death.

Ariana Molina is a high school senior living in secret in Chicago, in hopes her father's enemies do not find her. One day her father Reynaldo Molina, the lead federal investigator in Mexico targeting criminal organizations, arrives unexpectedly at her doorstep. After he is involved in a strange car accident that leaves one person dead, Ari begins to have visions of a veiled skeletal figure trying to lure her.

Struggling with visions of gruesome ghosts in the day and night, Ari is soon stalked by Chicago street gang members suspicious of her real identity. When Ari discovers they are indeed members of Mexico's most ruthless drug cartel who want her and her father dead, she has to make a choice to save their life and only Santa Muerte, the saint of death, can help her.


Cina is a poet and everything she writes takes that form. Her tales tease your mind with a silky touch until you realize you have just been nabbed by a demon. I could not put down her collection Loteria because it held onto my mind so tightly.

I hope you will read the dedication page in Santa Muerte. Every word I felt deeply as a Latina. It is full of heart and real, just like Cina. This book might be YA; however, it will still chill you to the bone. – V.Castro



  • I really enjoyed this story - it felt very immediate and real. I loved the Santa Muerte mythology and how Pelayo folded that in with the narco cartels."

    – Goodreads Review
  • Ignore your fear of YA and Death, this is a great book!"

    – Goodreads Review




The heavy, perfumed smell of incense was overpowering. This bordered on vile. The smells, a mix and meld of flowers and bark, were suffocating, so much so that the girl pressed her sweaty palms over her mouth to keep herself from coughing. It wasn't the actual cough that she feared. She wanted to cough, needed to cough, to expel the smoke that had clung to her lungs, but she didn't want to risk being found here, wherever here was.

Standing in the dark room she could make out a few shapes and silhouettes. Several feet in front of her were two large windows with heavy curtains drawn. Only a glint of light from outside peaked in through the sides. The light was enough so she could make out that she was in the middle of a large, and nearly bare living room. There was a table to the far left, but the table was situated far beyond the little light being cast into the room. There were some objects on the table, but that is all the girl could make out, as the light did not penetrate deep enough to shine on them. To the far right was another room, and from what she could tell in the darkness, a staircase. Where the staircase led she was uncertain. All she did know was that she came to be in this dark room by unknown means and that something, or someone, was stirring in the shadows. The last thing she remembered was settling into her Latin American History class before coming to find herself here.

A floorboard in the distance moaned once, as if someone were shifting their weight. The curtains lifted gently, and a soft breeze broke through the thickness of the burning incense. The girl wrapped her arms tightly around her chest and shivered, more so from the fear of unknowing than from the cold.

The floorboards creaked again, and again. Panic set in. The girl's arms began to shake. Her feet were frozen. Her eyes darted around the large room searching for an exit. Another wind blew and the curtains lifted enough so that she could see the windows were opened by just an inch. There was always the window, she thought. The floor creaked twice. They were hurried steps but calculated.

A feverish wave crossed the girl's face. She pleaded with her thoughts, demanded her mind to unlock her movements from the past few hours. There was the sunlight, the train ride into downtown for yet another boring day of her senior year. She had tossed her backpack beneath the desk and settled in for another drawn out lecture by Mr. Santos. Today's class had been a continuation of a discussion on the Aztec temples. He walked in, turned on the computer and the projector, and that's as far as her memory takes her. That had been the early morning. It was now late night. The entire day had been lost.

Two light steps tapped against the wooden floor and stopped. The steps continued until the girl could make out a large dark shape emerging from the thick blackness towards her. The movement was echoed throughout the space intensifying the reality that this person was making their way towards her. The girl rushed to the window, pulling on the metal handles, but it did not move. She looked outside and saw the sidewalk and parked cars along the street. This was her neighborhood, her block, and directly across the street was her building. She pulled and pulled again but the window did not move. The thick, oily smell intensified. She was not going to accept being trapped. Stepping away from the windows, she spun around facing the room. Searching the darkness in front of her, and the shadows in the corner. She could now make out the dark figure that had been walking towards her just a few moments ago.

As her eyes tried to adjust to the darkness, the figure disappeared. Her heart raced. Side stepping slowly, she moved away from the windows. With her back pressed against the wall her hands felt their way around. A soft single laugh echoed from nearby. From around the corner a dark mass appeared, darker than the room. Her hands tightened around her mouth. Quick, sharp gasps for air escaped her lips, sucking in the thick incense. Pressing her back tighter against the wall she hoped that it could not see her.

A heavy object struck the floor.

Her body tensed and she bit her lower lip to stop a scream from escaping. Something scraped against the wooden floor. She closed her eyes tightly and breathed deeply. It can't see me here. It's just too dark, she thought. The noise stopped, and she opened her eyes.

The figure was gone.

As quietly as she could she took a step sideways. She shook so violently that she had to wait a moment before moving again. Across the room there was another large pound, a scraping and a scratching against the floor, and then another laugh. It was searching for her. Continuing to inch sideways her hands swept across the wall behind her until she felt the break into the other room. With her hands pressed against the wall, she turned her head and looked into the next room. A small glass window at the top of a door facing the stairway illuminated the exit.

Sweat beaded down her forehead as her foot moved off of the floor to step into the next room. There was a crack and a flicker of light. Footsteps were making their way down the staircase. The girl stood motionless, with her back against the wall, watching. Hovering in the dark, a single matchstick glowed against a thin, cylindrical object on the floor. It was a glass-encased candle; a prayer candle. The hand holding the flame was obscured from a sleeve that dangled from it. The hand tipped down into the glass and lit the wick. The flame rolled down, settling atop the black wax, casting a soft light in the room. The candle was set on top of the table and then the person moved away, their black flowing robes twisted and twirled until they finally stepped out of the bounds of the candlelight, merging and melding with the darkness, becoming one with it.

The person did not see her. Perhaps they didn't know she was here this entire time. Maybe she was safe. Her muscles relaxed slowly into the wall, finding comfort against the cold, smooth surface. Shutting her eyes tightly she hoped that when she opened them again she would find herself safe in her bedroom, but when she opened her eyes there was only the soft, yellow flicker of the candle. With the stranger now gone, it was time to charge for the door.

Moving her back slowly off the wall and stepping towards the door something crashed in front of her. The floor sounded as if it cracked and splintered with the strength of what felt like a bowling ball being dropped from several feet above. A whimper escaped her lips. Inches from her ear there was the sound of a haggard throaty breath. Someone was at her side. Smooth, silky fabric brushed against her arms. An icy breath kissed her cheek. She closed her eyes and fought back tears. She didn't want to believe that she was trapped.

Then, a female voice asked. "Are you Reynaldo's daughter?"

"Dad!" A scream tore through her mouth. She kicked and twisted until she pulled herself out of the darkness. Her eyes opened, and then, she found herself in a hospital room.

Pushing strands of long, black hair out of her face, the blur of dim yellow fluorescent bulbs and white walls gradually came into view. The girl sat up and a sharp pain shot down her back. A gray sweater that was laid over her as a blanket rolled down from her shoulders to her knees. She pushed her arms through the sweater, looking about the room, almost as if she were expecting to see windows, a stairway, and probably even someone standing in a far-off corner watching with pleasure as she panicked, but there was no stranger here. On one side of the room there was a sink with low, white cabinets, tongue depressors and cotton balls stuffed in glass jars set on top of shelves. In the center of the room there was a complicated looking hospital bed, with guard rails, and a side panel containing too many buttons, most of which were illuminated blue. In the bed her father silently slept. Plastic tubes were connected to his arms and nose that ran to softly beeping machines and a nearby heart monitor displayed green jagged peaks and dips, painting the movements of his heart.

He didn't look intimidating, at least not here, in this injured state. This was after all the most wanted man in Mexico, but not in the traditional sense. Thousands of criminals wanted him dead, with a preference towards an excruciating and humiliating end to his existence in front of Mexico's narco-trafficker royalty. If any of them had word that he was here, right now, she was sure one of their American based counterparts would blast into the room, killing them both and a few nurses and doctors just for show. The more brazen the attack the better. Narcotrafficantes liked to kill in a big way.

Reynaldo Molina was the ultimate law enforcer in one of the world's most dangerous cities, Ciudad, Juarez in Mexico. Many say he knew what he was getting himself into, accepting a job in law enforcement fighting against the unforgiving titans of crime, and so sympathy for his family's misfortune came sparingly. Reynaldo had seen drug crime in his country spiral from petty thievery, and assault, to full-fledge mass murders. No place was immune, not open-air markets, resort towns or rural farm communities. All facets of society in Mexico had been disrupted by crime; tourism, law enforcement, and even its own citizens were daily victims of the cartels' expansion.

This is just part of the job Reynaldo would tell his daughter about, who would call him each time a story from Juarez appeared in the American headlines, which was becoming a weekly occurrence. Their conversations were mostly her telling him to quit, or to retire and come live with her in Chicago. He would stay silent, give verbal cues here and there to acknowledge he was listening, but he always ended the conversation with "This is my job hija, and it is my duty to Mexico." Their conversations ended the same each time, her slamming the phone, stomping off to school, or work, and in tears because she couldn't protect him as well as he had protected her.

Her father had always had fine lines around his eyes. It was as if he was born with worry. The deep wrinkles stretched across his forehead. The prominent laugh lines from his nostrils to the edges of his mouth were themselves ironic as this is a man who had forgotten to laugh a long time ago. He had changed. His work had made him quieter, and meaner.

It had been months since she had seen her father, but he looked more like he had aged years. It was still unclear why exactly he had shown up at her doorstep in the middle of the night. Her father was not one to take a random vacation from his job, especially with Mexico's murder rate surpassing everyone's estimations in recent reports. It was only May, and already hundreds had been killed. Control for territory, product, and profit was taking its toll on law enforcement who could barely control the spreading criminal element, and their constantly evolving game. Mexico's cartels were not playing by anybody's rules, not even their own. So, with murder and mayhem raging, why was her dad here?